It was my great honor to be invited by my dear friend, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, to preach this week at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo. The language and flow of this sermon are quite different from my usual practice, as I was speaking in a multi-faith context. I welcome the creative opportunity to express my values in a different way. Enjoy!
Breath is a funny thing. It happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. Our body simply knows how to do it. Most of the time, we take it for granted, even though it’s even more essential to life than food or water (or even iPhones or Facebook). But do we ever really pay attention to it?
I’d like to invite you to join me in a little experiment for a moment.
Try to sit up straight, as comfortably as you can, with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary. Now, just pay attention to your breathing.
Don’t try to control or force it. This is not about deep breathing; just the regular rhythm that’s happening all the time. Imagine yourself riding your breath, as if you were a surfer on the ocean.
Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest or shoulders as the air fills your lungs. Notice the expanding of your abdomen as your diaphragm draws the atmosphere into your body.
Now, let’s just sit with that for a bit. Just keep riding the unconscious rhythm of your breathing.
After a while, you will probably begin to notice other things as well: little noises in the room, twitches or pains in your body, thoughts popping in and out of your head. These are all perfectly normal. Don’t judge them. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing. Let everything just happen. Don’t try to empty your mind or stop yourself from thinking. Just let the thoughts come and go. Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a river, just watching the boats go by, and each thought, sensation, or noise is just another little boat. Just watch it go by while your attention is on the river itself, and the river is your breath.
Just sit with that awareness for this moment.
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes again (if you had them closed). What did you notice about yourself during this exercise?
Some people describe themselves as feeling more relaxed peaceful. Some notice little irritations or discomfort in their bodies or environment. I often notice, just after opening my eyes again, that lights and colors seem brighter or more vivid than they did before.
What do you think would happen within you if you were to practice this for five minutes a day or longer, maybe even working up to twenty minutes?
A lot of research has gone into that very question over the past two decades. Many self-help books have been written about mindfulness or meditation. Studies have demonstrated that those who practice this exercise on a regular basis report decreased stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. At the same time, they report an increase in memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. Therapists who practice mindfulness report an improvement in their counseling abilities.
I think all of these things are very good and true, but I also think there is a deeper significance to mindfulness practice that goes beyond the findings of clinical psychologists. Mindfulness, I think, brings us into a greater awareness of reality in the here and now.
The goal of mindfulness, as I understand it, is not to stop our thoughts and feelings, but to stop our identification with our thoughts and feelings. In an age where Twitter has reduced people to seething balls of opinions, mindfulness brings us back to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. Our True Self, if you will, has roots that go much deeper than the surface of our Ego. Mindfulness brings us into conscious awareness of that True Self.
Philosopher of religion John Hick points out that all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world bring their practitioners on a similar journey. This journey is conceived and expressed in different ways: Salvation, Enlightenment, Liberation, Recovery.
What they all have in common is that they present us with a problem and a solution. The journey on which they take us, according to Hick, is a journey from a self-centered way of living to a reality-centered way of living.
I would extend Hick’s observation beyond the bounds of traditional religious practice as well. We can see the same kind of journey taking place in the late medieval and early modern ages with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.
Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543 CE, published a manuscript On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In this book, Copernicus set forth this radical idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, while the earth and other planets revolved around it. Now, this theory was not original to Copernicus; it had been formulated before by many different astronomers around the world. However, it was Copernicus who rediscovered the idea of a heliocentric solar system for Western Europe.
The Copernican model challenged the prevailing orthodox view at that time, which declared unequivocally that the earth was stationary, while everything else in the universe revolved around it. Copernicus’ views were ridiculed and rejected by powerful religious and political forces. These supposedly heretical ideas called into question the power of a social system that was upheld by politics and religion. The thing that caused Copernicus’ detractors to tremble in fear was the thought that they might not be the center of the universe, after all.
The Copernican Revolution and subsequent development of the Scientific Method represent the gradual eclipse of traditional doctrine by rational observation in the matters of the physical sciences. Reason has not replaced religion entirely, but has caused it to adapt and grow in new ways.
If we take John Hick’s model of spirituality as a journey from self-centered thinking to reality-centered thinking, we can accept the Copernican Revolution as a scientifically ‘religious’ event. We can also understand it in terms of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness practice brings us to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. It shows us that we are not the center of the universe, but merely parts of a whole.
On the one hand, such a realization is threatening to any who identify themselves by their power, possessions, or privilege. On the other hand, it also has the potential to be profoundly liberating to those who are willing to open their minds.
Just think of the images that have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope for the past three decades. These photographs are like sacred icons to me. In those galaxies and nebulae, I see a beauty that is so vast and so ancient that I seem like a speck of dust or a wisp of smoke in comparison. On the other hand, I realize that the same cosmic order that gave rise to that beauty exists also in the atoms of my own body. I am as much a part of them as they are of me. Together, we are the universe. Observing those images with my eyes and contemplating them with my brain, I feel both small and great at the same time. No matter what happens to me in this life, the beauty of the cosmic order will remain untouched and continue to give rise to new forms in the future. That is my basis for faith, hope, and love, and it feels like freedom.
There is freedom to be found in the practice of mindfulness, but it is far from obvious to those who persist in identifying with their egocentric thoughts and emotions. The past century has brought us an increasing (though still incomplete) awareness of the diversity and dignity of creation. This awareness has inspired some among us to stand up for equality and the rights of our fellow beings. The struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights have given rise to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter today.
We have made some progress, but our work has still just begun. Just as in Copernicus’ time, powerful forces are reacting strongly against the advancement of equality. As some step out and speak out for equality, there are others who decry their message as “a War on Christmas… a War on Traditional Marriage… a War on America… A War on White People… A War on Men…”
Those who have benefitted from an unfair distribution of power and resources are afraid that their loss of privileged status is an attack on their very identity and existence. In mindfulness terms, they are continuing to identify with socially constructed categories like race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, or religion.
I say “they” but I really should say “we” because I stand before you today as a beneficiary of almost every possible category of privilege that can be identified. I am a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, male, American, and Christian human being. The political and economic structures of this country were set up by people who look like me and for people who look like me. I receive an unfair amount of privilege over and against my fellow human beings, simply because I was lucky enough to be born this way. I speak this morning to anyone who shares my privilege in any of the categories I just named. Even as members of the species homo sapiens, we occupy a privileged position of power over the other species and environments of this planet. The United States espouses the philosophical ideals of equality, but too often fails to live up to them in practice. Our privilege is a crime against humanity and, in the language of the Christian religious tradition, a sin against God.
While we are not personally culpable for the misdeeds of past generations, we are nevertheless responsible for doing our part to reshape the present for the sake of future generations. The task before us is to “check our privilege” in our dealings and interactions with those who do not possess a fair share of power and resources at the table. Our threefold mission, like Copernicus, is to let go of false-yet-convenient models of the past, to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and to take our place as parts of a great and beautiful whole. We can never hope to make anything “great again” because reality itself has never ceased to be great, and never will be. Its greatness is simply there, to be observed. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to become aware of it.
I believe that mindfulness meditation, like we have just practiced, is one tool that we can use in cultivating this awareness of our inherent greatness. We can check our privilege, not by flagellating ourselves in guilt for the sins of the past, but by being fully present in this moment with our fellow beings. We can check our privilege by showing up, being still, looking compassionately into one another’s eyes, and listening attentively to the pain that has been caused by centuries of oppression.
Over a century ago, the members of People’s Church did just that as they sat and listened to Sojourner Truth preach from the pulpit of this congregation. By practicing mindful awareness today, we will find ourselves once again in the great company of prophets like Nicolaus Copernicus and Sojourner Truth, that great communion of saints who have made the journey from self-centered living to reality-centered living. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can check our privilege by practicing mindful awareness today and so lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.
May it be so. Amen.